Friday, September 15, 2023

Designing Hollywood: Studio Wardrobe in the Golden Age by Christian Esquevin

Designing Hollywood
Studio Wardrobe in the Golden Age
by Christian Esquevin
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813197913
August 2023
University Press of Kentucky
 256 pages

"Modern glamour was born in Hollywood, where the combination of beautiful stars dressed in glimmering gowns traveled in movies and photos around the world." — Christian Esquevin

Author and researcher Christian Esquevin transports readers to the world of studio-era fashion in his new book Designing Hollywood: Studio Wardrobe in the Golden Age. The book is organized into several chapters each focusing on a different movie studio: Universal, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., MGM, Columbia and RKO. These chapters are book-ended by an introduction and wrap-up. Each section chronicles the history of the studio, the work of their costume designers, the professional relationship between designer and star and whether or not the studio made any efforts to preserve their costume collections. The focus here is solely on women's costumes. The book contains various black-and-white publicity photos of actresses in notable costumes and a handful of photos of the designers themselves. There is also a small insert of full-color design sketches. The author also describes individual costumes to help with visualization where photos are not available. While this was not intended to be a coffee table book, the larger format and eye-catching cover design does make it a beautiful book to keep on display.

While Designing Hollywood was well-researched and informative, it suffers from an awkward format, limited context and little to no extrapolation. There is little discussion about the impact these costume designers had on the film industry and there only brief mentions of their influence on the general public and on the fashion industry as a whole. The narrative has little flow and lacked any real insight or takeaways that would have made for a richer experience for the reader. Some chapters are better than others. I preferred the Paramount, MGM, RKO and Warner Bros. chapters over those on Universal, Fox and Columbia.

In my opinion, the book should have focused on the careers of the individual costume designers rather than the studios. Chapters on Irene, Edith Head, Orry-Kelly, Adrian, Mary Ann Nyberg, Walter Plunkett, etc. would have read been more engaging and still could have maintained the studio-era theme.

Because the book chapters are organized by studio, the overall timeline feels disjointed. For example, costume designer Irene's work for Universal Studios is detailed at length in the first chapter. At one point the author quickly changes from Irene's career to her tragic death without any transition. “Irene designed Day’s costumes for this film… on November 15, 1962, Irene slit her wrist and jumped out of a window at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood.” In chapter six on MGM, Irene is introduced again: "Irene was born Irene Lentz on December 15, 1901, in South Dakota." It feels odd to read about her death in chapter one only to have her come to life again in chapter six. 

I did notice a few errors in the book. The author writes: “Ann Dvorak (pronounced vor-shack) had also starred in Scarface in the same year but here gave her finest performance as a woman on a downward spiral." Except that's not how its pronounced in this instance. Rather it's d-voh-rAHk. There is also a mention of the TCM Classic Film Festival but it reads that TCM sponsors the festival and not that they host it.

While Designing Hollywood has plenty of interesting information about studio-era costume design, it reads too much like a standard reference book to be engaging. 

This is my fourth and final review for the 2023 Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of Designing Hollywood for review.

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